Top Five Underrated Movie Villains

words by Matthew Schuchman

Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate

Whenever I see a list of the best villains in film history, I always see the same characters: Darth Vader, Norman Bates, The Joker, raptors, etc. While those are indeed iconic figures, most are puppy dogs compared to some real evil bastards that have been put on the screen. Here is a top five list of true must-not-miss bad guys that may have flown beneath your radar. Be forewarned: spoilers (and naughty language!) may be contained herein.

1. Christopher Plummer as Harry Reikle in The Silent Partner (1978)

While Christopher Plummer just became the oldest actor to ever win an Academy Award, he has been performing for some time now. He’s played the good guy and the hard-ass, but nothing compares to the sheer psychopathic madness of bank robber Harry Reikle in The Silent Partner. When not dressing up as Santa to rob a bank, Reikle can be found calmly beating up a hooker, crushing her head against a wall with his foot and bringing her within an inch of death. If his creepy, serene manner doesn’t put you off, just wait until you see him saw off a woman’s head with the jagged edge of a broken fish tank. I never saw Darth Vader that angry.

2. Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Forget about “Murder She Wrote,” how about the murder she planned? Lansbury is the personification of pure evil, enveloped in a cold, calculating shell of power-hungry madness. You have to be a special type of demented to have your son kidnapped and brainwashed to become a subconsciously-controlled killing machine. Let’s not forget who she has him kill: his wife, his father-in-law, and some good old war buddies — and for what? She plans to have him kill the Democratic nominee for president so her alcoholic husband can take over the nomination and become a national hero. Her plan is executed without pause, nor a hint of remorse.

3. Robert Walker as Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train (1951)

Bruno Antony is a guy who has gone his whole life wishing he could murder someone. The idea is on his mind every minute of every day. What is the best way to do it? How can he not be caught?

When the opportunity arises to commit what he thinks is the perfect crime, he pitches is like it’s a new breakfast cereal to his unfortunate dinner companion. To have such a notion is demented enough, but to test such a murder theory on a wealthy older woman, in the middle of a posh party, in front of the man who wants to have you committed and a judge who has boasted his love of hangings, seems unthinkable. Not to Bruno, though — he does it with a smile on his face and glint in his eye.

4. Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett in Network (1976)

While Faye Dunaway ranks highly in the bad guy pantheon for her dastardly doings in Network, Duvall’s portrayal of the manic corporate shill Frank Hackett takes the cake. Never mind the fact that it’s people like Hackett who, in the real world, have made it possible for shows like “TMZ,” “Extra,” and “Jersey Shore” to make it to the airwaves, the fictional portrayal is difficult enough to stomach, single-handedly destroying a multitude of lives in the film, all in the name of ratings.

After incorporating the news into his new “ratings-or-nothing” business model, Hackett sits in a room with other executives and discusses murdering a man, simply because his ratings are poor. They can’t take Howard Beale off the air, because the boss likes what he has to say. Staging his assassination — which will happen live on air — is obviously the only reasonable way out of the situation.

5. Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000)

Take the characteristics of the previous four entries, roll them into one, and put them in the body of the man who played Gandhi, and you get Don Logan. A wild, take-no-prisoners, foul-mouthed psychopath with a jealous heart, Don Logan will attack like a rabid dog at the sound of a snail fart. There is no treading lightly in his presence: Don is the center of the world and demands respect for it. Of course, everything anyone says is disrespectful in Don’s eyes.

Who are your all-time favorite film villains?

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  • http://www.awardscircuit.com John H. Foote

    So impressed you chose Plummer at the top for his chilling performance in The Silent Partner (1978)…A CANADIAN FILM!!! He scared the hell out of me when I first saw the film. I liked Meryl Streep in The Manchurian Candidate (2004) almost as much as Lansbury…how did Angela lose the Oscar that year?? Also for me, pure evil was personified in Viggo Mortenson’s Satan in The Prophecy (1996) or Christopher Walken’s murderous father in At Close Range (1986) — neither really well known or widely seen films — Ed Harris was quietly terrifying as a mercenary in Under Fire (1983) and I also liked Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb.

  • Iam_Sparticus

    Scorpio in Dirty Harry.

  • Rivethead

    I don’t think there’s really anything underrated about Kingsley in Sexy Beast. His performance was lauded by critics and and patrons alike, and I think it even got some award nominations.